On Soulslikes

Words: 2690 Approximate Reading Time: 15-25 minutes

I love Dark Souls. I love pretty much all of FromSoftware’s games. I even want to revisit the Armored Core series at some point, since I have some fondish memories of Armored Core 2 from my teenage years. I have plenty to say about the series itself, about the other games that Fromsoft made which are similar to Dark Souls, and about why I think people find these games so appealing.

But instead, I want to talk about the genre of games that has become known as the “soulslike.” Obviously, this is a game that mimics the Souls games in some way, often with the specific intention of evoking the same love and excitement. If I had to guess, most of these games are the product of developers that enjoyed Fromsoft’s games and thought to themselves “I love this game, and want to try to make a game like it.” I say “most” soulslikes followed this trend, as it feels like a few of them were made to try and cash in on a craze.

Since I am both a huge fan of the Souls games, and a glutton for punishment, I spend a lot of time playing soulslikes. I shouldn’t, because I’m almost always disappointed. But the silver lining is that the more I play these games and am disappointed by them, the better I understand why Fromsoft’s efforts were so successful.

I’d prefer not going through an exhaustive list of soulslike games. Doing that would really require me to replay many of them, which in most cases I’d prefer not to do. Instead, I’d like to use this space to try and focus on some bigger issues about the genre.

I’ll note that just because I have found just about every soulslike game (at least those not made by Fromsoft) disappointing does not mean they’re all bad. There are some I think are genuinely bad, and some that I think are decent or even good.

Defining a Soulslike

The best way to start, pedantic as it may feel, is to step back and ask what a “soulslike” actually is. It’s easy enough to say “it’s a game that’s like Dark Souls,” but that definition isn’t exactly helpful. “Like” in what sense? That it’s hard? That mistakes in combat are harshly punished? That the game is open and allows exploration? That it has a vague story? Which element or elements we pick is going to dictate our answer. So it’s a good idea to have a solid definition.

So I’ll start out with the following proposal. Let’s imagine a spectrum, where a game can be more or less like Dark Souls. The following elements push a game further and further along the spectrum. I will order them here in accordance with how important the element is, and how far along it moves the game up the spectrum.

  1. Combat is tough and punishing, and relies on the player understanding things like fighting mechanics and enemy movesets. The player cannot simply attack wildly, so combat requires some level of thought. Stamina systems are easy ways to accomplish this goal, but aren’t strictly necessary. The game should provide the player with a few defensive options (you can think of blocking, dodging, and parrying as the most common options), and a few offensive options (usually melee, magic, and some kind of ranged option).
  2. Although the game is an RPG, player progression in terms of stats is subtle. Players can increase things like damage, health, and defense, but these changes will not radically alter the game: a bad player who simply grinds and pumps their stats is still going to hit walls and be blocked.
  3. Death is punished in some way beyond merely losing progress, usually through the loss of useful resources such as experience or currency. This loss can be permanent, or the game can have a corpse run mechanic that allows the player to reacquire what was lost.
  4. The game is fairly open and encourages (and rewards) exploration. In simple terms, it’s a Metroidvania. Dark Souls, after all, is essentially a three-dimensional Metroidvania.
  5. The game’s storytelling relies more heavily on lore found on equipment and in character dialogue than in the direct narrative given to the player through cutscenes and the main story.

This list at least gives some way of guiding us in how we categorize games. Obviously, this list should only be used for the purpose of looking at games released after the Souls games. It would be rather absurd to go backwards and call an old Super Nintendo game a soulslike, even if it met all of the above criteria.

The Inherent Danger of Soulslikes

Now that we have some broad idea of what a soulslike is, a brief but important digression. There’s nothing inherently wrong with making a soulslike. Game developers often take ideas from properties they personally loved or properties that are popular.

It’s not wrong, but it does create a problem for the developer. Namely, it invites a rather obvious comparison to a game that is deeply loved by a lot of people, while being primarily marketed at those people. It’s putting up a gigantic neon sign that points right at the game and says “COMPARE ME TO DARK SOULS!” And if the developer is confident in their abilities, that’s fine. But it also means they have to expect some level of sharp criticism, and that they will ultimately disappoint a fair number of people unless they can walk an extremely fine line.

The danger of this comparison is that the developer may be pretty much damned either way. If the game is lacking in some important element – the developer might not have realized the element was needed, or left it out intentionally, or couldn’t incorporate it due to time or budgetary constrains – then the game suffers from the comparison because it doesn’t get close to capturing the original magic. If the game successfully copies everything perfectly, then the game suffers from the comparison by feeling like nothing other than cheap mimicry.

I don’t know for certain if it is impossible to navigate these hazards, but it leaves the developer in an extremely tight spot. And in my experience, no game that really fits into the soulslike genre successfully gets through without running into one of these two problems (pretty much always the former). Which isn’t to say that every game has been bad. Some I’ve found good, albeit disappointing because of the comparison, while some I’ve found mediocre or downright bad. There is still a level of skill in the execution of these things that depends on the developer at the end of the day.

Let’s end the digression there.

Where Do Soulslikes Go Wrong?

With our defining elements in mind, the core question I wanted to tackle here is identifying why so many soulslikes end up feeling disappointing. What is it that they so often miss, even when they try to hew closely to the original formula?

So let’s step back and ask ourselves “why do so many people like Dark Souls?” The answer is complex, because people enjoy the games for numerous reasons. Some people like the difficulty of the combat system. Some people enjoy the bare-bones story and the task of theorycrafting based on the lore. Some people enjoy PvP. There’s a lot for people to like, because there’s a lot for people to focus on. The game allows players to enjoy themselves in so many ways, while not requiring that any given player participate in all elements at the same time.

But just as important is what you might think of as the “fullness” of Dark Souls. One of the appealing things about Dark Souls is the thought put into how the world fits together and tells its own little series of stories. In a game that relies less on direct narrative and more on smaller details to build the world, those tiny elements take on a new significance.

Some examples of this fullness, for illustration. You might have noticed the way in which the world fits together as a physical space, to the point that the distances you travel to go from one place to another make a kind of intuitive (if not necessarily perfect) sense. Or you might have noticed how the world is open in a way that you can often see the places you are about to visit, or have already visited, allowing you to point your camera somewhere and say “I’m going to go there.” Or you might have seen how certain enemies are placed in a way that invites you to ask why that enemy is there.

Dark Souls definitely isn’t perfect in this regard. You can find plenty of videos pointing out mistakes or lazy design here and there. But this kind of fullness serves to make the Souls games more than a mere sum of their individual parts.

So where soulslike games commonly fall short ends up being trying to highlight only a couple components of the original. Usually, these are the tough combat mechanics (with or without some special addition or change) and the vague story. These two elements feel so integral because they’re directly experienced by players, and therefore are easy to grasp.

Combat

Usually the combat systems in soulslikes are fine. On occasion you get additions that can wreck the gameplay in some way, but often the developer either copies the original Souls combat system closely, or makes only very minor changes. The very nature of how game development works generally requires that the developer get the combat mostly right, since combat is going to be such a core element in these games.

Often the way in which combat falls short is in boss fights. The Souls games tend to give you bosses with varied and often complex movesets, that require the player to pay careful attention and look for openings. Even normal enemies can have a few different moves. But boss movesets in soulslikes tend to feel very limited, to the point that it becomes much easier to defeat bosses without dying, or only dying a couple times. Even trying to go back and replay the Fromsoft games can cause more difficulty than some of these soulslikes.

Story

But vague storyline is where the games stumble even more. Most of the ways this narrative plays out is that you’re given, well, vague directions about what you’re doing and why you’re doing it. Go here and do this to accomplish this nebulous purpose. Why should the character and I as the player care? Just go do it. If you want to know what’s going on, pick up stuff and check the lore. Sometimes this can play out such that you aren’t even sure where you’re supposed to go next, which is a problem that can be exacerbated by confusing world design.

Yet this style misses a lot of how the original Dark Souls story was walking a kind of tightrope. The narrative has all of these small pieces to not only explain to you what you’re doing, but everything is also written from the perspective of being for the character, and not merely the player. The game – through small details such as the opening, the character’s background, NPCs, and so on – gives these hints to help explain why your character should want to do any of this stuff (aside from “someone told me to,” which is always a terrible motivation), while also helping to direct you as the player to your next goals. Obviously, with the openness of the world, some confusion about where to go next is natural. But this becomes a problem that the developer has to solve. What makes the original Dark Souls work in this respect, though, is that you can see the ways in which it tries to give those little hints to help keep the player on the “right” path without forcing the player onto a particular path.

“Fullness”

So these are what soulslikes often focus on and ways in which they often fall short. But even a game that perfectly captures these two elements is still going to feel disappointing. Why? Because they still lack that “fullness” I was talking about earlier.

Making a gigantic open area is tough. Think about how much work has to be done. You not only have to design the individual areas themselves, you then have to design them as part of a larger world and sketch out how they all fit together, and then you have to figure out how to set it all up so that it doesn’t take up too much processing power.

So the obvious answer, especially when you’re a developer that doesn’t have a lot of manpower and resources, is to find workarounds. So perhaps rather than making a single gigantic world, you make a series of smaller worlds that can be connected through loading zones. Other areas are then hidden behind big natural or artificial walls, so that you can’t look out to the horizon and see other places, because there is no “horizon” to speak of. Sometimes there’s an internal logic to this sectioning, and sometimes there isn’t (which only detracts from the “fullness” of the game).

What happens as a result of these workarounds is that the game just never carries the same charm as Dark Souls. Rather than feeling like you’re exploring a world, you’re really just exploring a sequence of areas.

The problem applies in turn to 2D soulslikes, since by their very nature they can’t give that same broad view that a 3D game can. That limitation doesn’t prevent the game from making good use of its available resources, but it necessarily brings the overall value of the game down compared to its three-dimensional counterparts.

I also mentioned earlier the way in which attention to detail becomes important for the same purpose of building a world to be inhabited. Many soulslikes fall short in this respect, again often because they’re focused on the core parts of their game and don’t have the resources to devote to these small details. But those details are important, because they are able to tell their own little stories. But when enemies and objects and the environment all feel like they are placed without some guiding logic, then everything feels like it exists not because it belongs there, but because it simply has to go somewhere. This isn’t to say that developers are creating environments or placing objects or enemies with no thought whatsoever. Instead, it’s that the reasoning behind these choices are too self-contained, without sufficient thought about what that given choice says about the world being crafted. And to be fair, that’s a tough question to answer.

I focus here on just the single-player experience, because as I mentioned already I play these games on my own. So whether these soulslikes are able to adequately balance the player-versus-enemy when your friends join, or whether they are able to balance the player-versus-player more generally, is simply a question I cannot answer.

But my intention here is simply to point out some of the broader issues with creating a soulslike. It’s not always a good idea to invite the comparison to Dark Souls. Where developers primarily fall short is in not quite understanding the magic of the Souls games. This misunderstanding exists in the details – not quite grasping how the various pieces work or how they are supposed to fit together. And in the broader sense, the error lies in not quite grasping the way in which the original Souls games have set a standard that is difficult or potentially impossible to match.

I am sure that this essay, even if everyone were to read it, would not prevent the creation of new soulslikes. And I don’t want to tell a developer to just give up making games. But if a developer is ever thinking about making a soulslike, it’s a good idea to slow down, take a deep breath, and really think carefully about what they’re getting into, and what they hope to accomplish.

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